Fun article at Slate.com by mom and author Emily Yoffe, who polled her 11-year-old's peer group about the question implied in the headline. Among other things, the "focus group" confirmed (qualitatively, anyway) my suspicion that one of the appeals (for the kids) of online play is that it's just kid stuff right now – Mom or Dad can't possibly know about all the sites they use and if s/he does, s/he doesn't have time to keep up with all their ins and outs. It'll be a while before we catch up with our digerati, kids know very well.
Anyway, with the group, Emily visits several tween-targeting virtual-world sites that have some things in common, including buying stuff for your avatar with virtual money. "To purchase this fake clothing and furniture [in virtual world sites] requires fake money, and to earn it, players are required to play a series of arcade-style games. What better lesson can we teach our kids: If you've just blown through your home-equity loan, you can always avoid bankruptcy by spending a couple of days in Vegas." The kids, she found, don't ask Mom or Dad to pay for the paid version of these sites because that would only "draw undue attention to [the kids' online] leisure activities." So her daughter and friends currently prefer a site by General Mills called Millberry.com.
As for avatar friends in these virtual worlds (e.g., ClubPenguin), one child "thought the befriending feature was something of a sham. First of all, these penguin friendships were too meaningless even for kids who do much of their real-life socializing online. Second of all, because she wasn't a [paying] member, Ellie was embarrassed to invite people to her barren igloo because it looked 'pathetic'." Many parents will sympathize with Emily's conclusion about the sadness of on-screen play replacing the old hands-on kind we pre-Digital Age types engaged in. But the nostalgia in this response, plus too much exposure to very negative media and political hype about online risks, may keep us from helping our kids take advantage of the benefits of the social Web for youth.